Ei kan nog vlieg

Dan Jacobson

  • Way Up Way Out by Harold Strachan
    David Philip, 176 pp, £6.99, July 2002, ISBN 0 86486 355 1

Almost five years ago the Cape Town publishing company David Philip brought out Way Up Way Out, a novel by Harold Strachan. Some time later I was sent a copy of the book by a friend of Strachan’s in KwaZulu-Natal, where the author himself has lived much of his life. His name on the cover meant nothing to me – though if I had been more quick-witted I might have connected it to his second trial and period of imprisonment during the apartheid years. For various reasons that episode had been widely reported at the time in the British press and I had known one of the people involved in it. Anyway, I read the book ‘blind’, admired it greatly, and then discovered that I was not alone in never having heard of it. None of the ex-South Africans living in London I spoke to knew of it, and during a subsequent visit to South Africa I learned that the same seemed to apply to people I met there. On my return to England I made two attempts to rouse interest in the book, and on both occasions was told by the publishers I contacted that it was ‘too South African’ to appeal to readers in this country.

Too South African? While I understand why this charge may be made against the book – however wrongheadedly – I also suspect it to be a cover for another, contradictory source of dissatisfaction with it: namely, that it was not South African enough. On that subject, more below. First, however, I must make clear my own view of the novel. Whatever its faults (and it has some), Way Up Way Out is a painful, funny, inventive, high-spirited piece of work, full of the energies of both scorn and compassion, and (in its apparently offhand manner) wide-ranging and unrelenting in its attention to South African history, South African landscape and, above all, South African speech. The only established ‘literary’ writer in South Africa who appears to have applauded the book, so far as I know, is Athol Fugard, who describes it on the back cover of the paperback as ‘shamelessly engaging and utterly refreshing’. What makes this comment especially interesting is that Way Up Way Out has something important in common with Fugard’s best plays (such as Hello and Goodbye or the collaboratively written Sizwe Bansi is Dead). Like Fugard, Strachan has seized eagerly on the expressive potentialities of South African English demotic speech – on its comic dislocations, its roughness, its capacity to rise at times to a kind of desperate poetry – in order to make something new and rare of it.

Think of the languages that cohabit promiscuously within that speech: English (in a variety of forms and accents), Afrikaans (ditto), Xhosa, Zulu, Sotho and the remains of many other all but forgotten tongues, both indigenous and imported, like Malay, Tamil, Yiddish and the language of the San or Bushman people.[*] Think of what English undergoes in the mouths of Afrikaners (and vice versa); of how Zulu or Xhosa is traduced in the mouths of whites into ‘fanagolo’, also known until recently as ‘kitchen kaffir’, a language described by Strachan as ‘a pidgin lingo of insult to the recipient and debasement to the user’. (Its verbs, for instance, are almost invariably in the imperative mood: do this, do that, stop, go, come, fetch, carry, hurry.) Again and again Strachan thrusts the reader directly into these fierce lexical and historical scrimmages, occasionally ‘translating’ terms used casually by his characters, or amusing himself with a phonetic transcription of their notions of how English should sound, but for the most part simply hurrying on with his narrative, scattering behind him clues to help readers pick up from the context as much as they need to know.

The effects he achieves by these means can be illustrated from almost anywhere in the book. Take the passage which introduces one of the novel’s leitmotifs: the narrator’s fascination with flying, which eventually leads to his volunteering for the South African Air Force and emerging as a trained bomber pilot shortly before the end of the Second World War. (This choice has tragic consequences for his closest friend, who decides to follow him along the same path.) His curiosity about flight is triggered initially by a family servant – ‘a reclassified slave’ – named Bellum: ‘a wee, tiny San man . . . a dinkum Bushman’ who ‘for all his diminutive size was favoured by women . . . They believed him to have magical love-making powers: a sort of sexual imp or tokoloshe . . . I personally think,’ the narrator goes on,

it had something to do with his sensitive nature. I don’t mean he was any sort of wilting aesthete, any sort of ponderous Van der Post with his laboured shamanistic aesthetic and the vacuous Charles Windsor nodding sagely at his elbow. Bellum didn’t know about the Mantis mating with the Eland and giving birth to the Moon.

Bellum’s circumstances didn’t leave a hell of a lot of room for mysticism. But in his coarse, stultifying, urban world he had somehow kept his intimacy with nature, which I purposely do not spell with a capital. Bellum taught me aerodynamics. Siet djy jirrie vollok? he asked, showing me a long-expired dove. Ei kan nog vlieg. Ekke sadjou wys. Taking this old biltong bird and loosening up its anatomical hinges with small drippings of boiling water, so that they would soon harden up again, he produced there and then a Lilienthal glider which flew. Furthermore, he explained a problem which had caused the Wright brothers near-total despair and near-abandonment of the Kittyhawk project: how to use a rudder to cancel unwanted drag on the outside wing in a turn when extra lift was needed there to bank the aircraft into the turn.

Inspired by Bellum (who of course knows nothing of the Wright brothers or the terms the narrator has just used), he and his friends design from scratch and build a balsa-wood glider. This they box up carefully and take out of town to reassemble on site. (‘I mean, really, it was like bits of an Airbus being built all over Europe and stuck together in Toulouse.’) Bellum accompanies them and is so impressed by the craft in its assembled form – ‘Hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiw!’ is all he manages to say when he first sees it – that the boys grant him the privilege of launching it. No sooner has it left his ‘little fingers’ than it begins to climb and is soon making its way out of sight.

So, then, steadily, gracefully, riding the orographic lift, ridge-soaring like a yellow-billed kite, she found her way over the black wattles where now the filthy factories stand, and picked up a thermal there at a hundred feet or so . . .

With the wind under her tail she was making six knots I reckon, and still climbing, white and pretty and a piece of good sound European technology. Hell, how are we going to get her back? Go jump on your bike and ask people back there if they’ve seen . . .

Los hom! said Bellum softly, taking my elbow. Los hom! Hy’s vry!

We called her She, he called him He.

He was free!

Too South African? There can be no doubt that the book is in the first place addressed uncompromisingly to the people who (the author hopes) will read it in the country in which it is set and who will recognise at first hand the social orders and disorders it describes. But is it really so hard for others to understand? My South African birth and upbringing notwithstanding, I admit that I had never come across the word vollok before reading Way Up Way Out, and what is more, have failed to find it anywhere in my old school-issue Woordeboek. Yet, magically, I knew almost at once what the word meant in its context, just as I now bravely assume that the reader in England will understand what a Woordeboek is too.

As for the novel not being ‘South African enough’ – well, I suspect that readers in South Africa and elsewhere have been conditioned over the many miserable decades of apartheid to expect the country’s white, English-language novelists – for all the differences among them – to adopt in their work a peculiarly solemn, explanatory, teaching note, which, paradoxically, can result in both writers and readers being put at their ease, morally speaking. That is, confirmed in their own rectitude. Here we are, the writers seem to say, describing this harsh, torn, truculent country, with all its hideous injustices and estrangements, bearing the burden and exercising the privilege of opening the eyes of our fellow-countrymen to what they are doing, warning the rest of the world of what might befall it if it does not listen to us – and so on and so forth.

That is a caricature of course, but it is a recognisable one. (As I have to acknowledge when I recall some of my own fiction set in South Africa.) And if readers do indeed expect South African fiction to look and sound like that, then what are they to make of something as impious and guiltless as Way Up Way Out: impious even in speaking of its angers and griefs, of which it has many, from many sources? The book simply gets on with its business of dramatising the obsessions at its heart: flying, sex, music, nature, art (drawing especially), risk-taking, social conformism in all its comic and sinister forms. It has some fine set-pieces, like a lunatic expedition undertaken in midwinter by the narrator and his friend Andrew Kreis, nicknamed Cheese, to the high Drakensberg, where they nearly die of hunger and exposure. (Why ‘Cheese’? The author offers no explanation. He leaves it to his readers to put nickname and surname together – and say them out loud.) There is also the boy’s solitary visit to Durban, a forty-mile bicycle ride up and down steep hills, to listen to the singing of Amy Shuard; and the portrait of a beloved old lady, a sexy mother-figure, German by origin, who returns to Germany just before the war breaks out and of whose death in an Allied bombing-raid the narrator learns in circumstances which are peculiarly tormenting to him. And finally there is the undoing of Cheese, who loses his life a few weeks before his training as a pilot is completed, and just as the adult life of both boys should be about to begin.

The Cape Town publishers describe Way Up Way Out as ‘a satirical novel’. While much of it is satirical in intention, as a whole it deserves a much grander designation. It is in fact a Bildungsroman, a novel describing the formation of a character or soul. Rather as Hans Castorp in The Magic Mountain ‘vanishes out of our sight’ in the tumult of the First World War, so the hero of Way Up Way Out is left in an empty mess-hall at the end of the passing-out parade that will send him into active service in a different war. Something about the kind of service this young man actually engages in not long afterwards can be gathered from the story ‘Protocol and Pink Slippers’ that appeared in the last issue of the London Review of Books.

[*] How tortuous even the naming of these languages can be emerges from this entry in A Dictionary of South African English (Oxford, 1996), under the heading of ‘San’t : ‘In the early 1970s academic and scientific writers preferred the term “San” to “Bushman”, the latter being perceived as derogatory. However “San” is now believed to have been a derogatory word when used by the Khoi-Khoi, and “Bushman” is again in use among scholars.’